African American Women Leaders in the Suffrage Movement
Edited by Edith Mayo
This listing of African American Women Leaders in the American Woman Suffrage Movement is taken from the works of Dr. Rosalyn Terborg-Penn, former Professor of History and Coordinator of Graduate Programs in History at Morgan State University in Baltimore. She is the foremost authority on African-American women in the suffrage movement. A founder of the Association of Black Women Historians, her extensive research has enriched our historical knowledge of this topic. The works from which this information was taken are listed at the end of this entry. The Turning Point Suffragist Memorial wishes to acknowledge and express deep appreciation for her ground-breaking work.
HISTORICAL NOTE ON WOMAN SUFFRAGE ORGANIZATIONS:
After the Civil War, woman suffrage supporters organized the American Equal Rights Association (AERA) in 1866. By 1870, this group had splintered because of divisions over tactics, aims, and personalities. Two groups emerged: the National Woman Suffrage Association,(NWSA) led by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, considered the more radical group, supported a Federal Amendment to enfranchise women. The American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA), considered the more mainstream group, led by Lucy Stone and Julia Ward Howe, adopted a state-by-state approach to winning the vote for women. These two groups united in 1890 becoming the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). Although nominally led by veteran suffragists Stanton and Anthony, the NAWSA generally adopted the state-by-state approach to suffrage. These affiliations are important in distinguishing the approach to woman suffrage adopted by individual Black suffragists.
African American women were in a difficult position. Sometimes they worked in their own clubs and suffrage organizations, sometimes with white suffragists. Black women did not accept their exclusion from white suffrage organizations or the racist tactics employed by white suffragists. In the twentieth century, more and more Black women joined the ranks of suffragists as the movement progressed.
SOJOURNER TRUTH: c. 1797(?) – 1883
Born Isabella (later Van Wagener), a slave in upstate New York, she was the first known African American suffragist. An illiterate, itinerant preacher and reformer from Ulster County, New York, she was an emancipated slave who supported herself with menial jobs. She traveled throughout the eastern United States and attended woman’s rights conventions as an outspoken proponent for woman’s rights and woman suffrage. Her overwhelming presence, personal magnetism, and unique oratorical style captivated audiences and won even skeptics to the cause. She also earned money by selling the Narrative of Sojourner Truth, written for her by Olive Gilbert. In 1852-53, she spent several days with Harriet Beecher Stowe, who called her “The Lybian Sibyl,” who spread Truth’s fame in an Atlantic Monthly article in 1863. She was said to have delivered a powerful speech in favor of woman’s rights at the Akron, Ohio woman’s convention in 1851, remembered as “Ain’t I a Woman?” a speech which some historians today question because it is written in Southern slave dialect, while Truth had the speech of one raised in Dutch-speaking New York. This speech secured her reputation as a famous champion of the woman’s rights cause. In 1864, she traveled to Washington D. C. where she was received by President Lincoln in the White House. In December of that year, the National Freedman’s Relief Association appointed her “counselor to the freed people” at Freedman’s Village, Arlington Heights, VA. Truth also attended meetings of the American Equal Rights Association where she called for the vote for both Black men and for women. In the mid-1850s, she moved to Battle Creek, Michigan, where she lived among an enclave for free Blacks. In 1875, Truth returned to Battle Creek , amid forays of lecturing, where she died in 1883.
CHARLOTTE VANDINE FORTEN, SR: (1785 – 1884)
An abolitionist and suffragist, Charlotte Forten came to Washington, D. C. in the late 1870s with her husband, James Forten, a Black abolitionist. Charlotte worked in the government and taught school. She had been a founder and member of the interracial Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society, many of whose members became active in the women’s rights movement.
HARRIET FORTEN PURVIS (1810 – 1875):
Daughter of wealthy sail maker and abolitionist reformer James Forten, Sr., Harriet and her sisters were founding members of the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society, and members of the American Equal Rights Association, where Harriet served as a member of the executive committee. Affluent and educated, the sisters helped lay the groundwork for the first National Woman’s Rights Convention in October, 1854, and helped organize the Philadelphia Suffrage Association in 1866.
MARGARETTA FORTEN (1806 -1875):
Margaretta was an educator and abolitionist. She and her mother, Charlotte Forten ,and her sister, Harriet, were founders and members of the interracial Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society. The Forten sisters had never been enslaved.
HARRIET (HATTIE) PURVIS, JR:
A niece of the Forten family of reformers, Purvis was active in the Pennsylvania Woman Suffrage Association and a member of their Executive Committee. Between 1883 and 1900, she served as a delegate to the National Woman Suffrage Association. She also served as Superintendent of Work among Colored People for the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, championing both reforms. Unlike Gertrude Mossell, who made her voice heard through the Black press, Purvis did not. As a result, her views about woman suffrage remain little known. A friend of Susan B. Anthony, she, like Frances Harper, represented the second generation of Black women suffragists. Harriet was a member of the Executive Committee of the Pennsylvania Woman Suffrage Association in 1884, and was a delegate to the National American Woman Suffrage Association between 1883 and 1900.
ANGELINA WELD GRIMKE (1880 -1958):
Archibald Grimke moved to Washington with his daughter Angelina Weld Grimke, where he became a Republican Party diplomat and Civil Rights activist. His daughter, a well-known feminist in the District of Columbia, was a journalist, playwright, poet, lesbian, suffragist and teacher of English at Dunbar High School (formerly the M Street High School). She was a member of a family of distinguished women reformers, including the Fortens and the Grimkes. A radical feminist, Angelina wrote for several journals such as Margaret Sanger’s Birth Control Review. Educated at Wellesley, she became a talented short story author, dramatist, and orator, whose literary works exposed her ideas about the pain and violence in Black women’s lives, and her rejection of the double standards imposed on women by the courts, education, employment, and marriage. Her works foreshadowed the Harlem Renaissance. She, herself, never married. Angelina used the above rationales saying, “The injustices will end” when women get the ballot. In remaining single, she maintained her position on the Dunbar High School faculty for many years, because school practices at the time forced married women out of their careers. Angelina became an important member of the social and intellectual Black elite of Washington, D. C.
CHARLOTTE FORTEN GRIMKE (1837 – 1914):
An abolitionist and suffragist, Charlotte, a niece of Harriet Purvis and Margaretta and Sarah Forten, was raised in a family of abolitionist zeal. She was tutored at home, but attended a high school in Salem, Massachusetts where she lived with the Charles Remond family, having been sent there by her father because Black students were denied admission to the Philadelphia public schools. She graduated with distinction in 1855. She was among the volunteer teachers to the community of former slaves at Port Royal, GA. Charlotte became a teacher, author, and educator of freedmen, as well as a suffrage supporter. Moving to Washington, D. C. in 1873, she held a clerkship in the Treasury Department. In 1878, she married Francis James Grimke, a former slave and son of white South Carolina planter, Henry Grimke, and nephew of white abolitionists and feminists, Sarah and Angelina Grimke-Weld. In Washington, she mentored her niece, Angelina Weld-Grimke and the prominent Black teacher, Anna Julia Cooper. As a suffragist, she affiliated with the American Woman Suffrage Association.
SARAH REMOND (1826 – 1887(?)):
Sarah Remond was an antislavery lecturer and physician, one of eight children. The Remonds were a noted abolitionist family, well known in anti-slavery circles and, as a child, Sarah had attended abolitionist meetings. She was an activist in the Salem and Massachusetts Antislavery Societies. In 1856, Sarah was appointed an agent of the American Anti-Slavery Society. From Salem, Massachusetts, Sarah and her brother, Charles, spoke at the national woman’s rights convention in New York City in 1858, where both were honored for their speeches advocating woman suffrage. She also took her anti-slavery cause to British audiences, where she drew large crowds. She was a member of the American Equal Rights Association, where she served as a guest lecturer, and toured the Northeast campaigning for universal suffrage. Discouraged by the split in the woman suffrage movement after the Civil War, she left the United States, becoming an expatriate in Florence, Italy, in 1866, where she studied medicine and is said to have received a diploma certifying her for “Professional Medical Practice.” Little is known of her later life and death. Her departure from the United States suggests the hopelessness she felt about African American women ever achieving equality in their homeland. The summaries of her lectures published in newspapers and periodicals are the remaining record of her anti-slavery work.
CHARLOTTA (LOTTIE) ROLLIN (1849 – ?):
After the Civil War, the woman suffrage movement split into two separate organizations: the National Woman Suffrage Association (the more radical group led by Stanton and Anthony), and the more mainstream group, the American Woman Suffrage Association, (led by Lucy Stone and Julia Ward Howe). Lottie Rollin joined the American Woman Suffrage Association. During Reconstruction, Blacks participated in Southern Reconstruction politics, and Rollin became active in South Carolina where she and her sisters, Frances and Louisa, influenced state politics in the late 1860s and 1870s. She worked for Black congressman Robert Brown Elliott. Rollin spoke on the floor of the South Carolina House of Representatives in 1869 in support of universal suffrage. By 1870, Lottie chaired the founding meeting of the South Carolina Woman’s Rights Association and was elected secretary of the newly-organized Association and, in 1871, led a meeting at the state capital to advocate woman suffrage.
Lottie and her sisters, Frances, Kate and Louisa, were all active in promoting woman suffrage at both the state and national levels.
MARY ANN SHADD CARY (1823 – 1893):
A veteran suffragist from Washington, D. C., Cary worked as a journalist, teacher, lawyer, and politician. Born in Wilmington, Delaware, she was perhaps the first African American suffragist to form a suffrage Association. During the 1850s, she was a leader and spokesperson among the African American refugees who fled to Canada after passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850. In 1853, she founded the Provincial Freeman, a newspaper dedicated to the interests of Blacks in Canada. She was acclaimed as “the first colored woman on the American continent to establish and edit a weekly newspaper.” By 1869, she was a widow. She moved to Washington, D. C. and decided to study law and became the first woman student at the newly established Howard University Law School, while teaching in the District of Columbia school system during the day. Although listed in the Howard law class of 1871-72, Cary was not permitted to graduate because the D.C. legal code did not permit a woman’s admission to the bar. After a decade, Cary returned to Howard and received her law degree. She spoke at the 1878 convention of the National Woman Suffrage Association. In her arguments advocating suffrage, she clearly applied the principles of the 14th and 15th Amendments to women as well as men. She called for an amendment to strike the word “male” from the Constitution. In 1871, Cary unsuccessfully tried to vote in D. C. but she and 63 other women prevailed upon officials to sign affidavits attesting that women had tried to vote. In 1876, Cary wrote the National Woman Suffrage Association on behalf of 94 Black women requesting that their names be enrolled in the July 4th (1876 was the 100th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence) autograph book as signers of the Woman’s Declaration of Sentiments, which demanded the immediate enfranchisement of American women. Unfortunately, the names were not included. In her suffrage work, Cary connected education, women’s labor questions, and economic and business development to political empowerment. In 1880, she organized the Colored Women’s Progressive Franchise Association in Washington, D. C., whose statement of purpose included an agenda both political and economic.
FRANCES ELLEN WATKINS HARPER (1825 – 1911):
Harper was a Philadelphia lecturer and organizer of African American women. Born in Baltimore, MD, about 1845, she published a collection of poetry and prose entitled, Forest Leaves. In 1854, she delivered an antislavery lecture in New Bedford, Massachusetts, “Education and the Elevation of the Colored Race,” whose success launched her career. She interspersed her lectures with selections from her Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects, her volume of antislavery poems. She married Fenton Harper in 1860 and settled near Columbus, Ohio. With the death of her husband in 1864, she resumed lecturing. She published numerous articles, poems, and books in the periodicals of her day. She was a founding member of the American Woman Suffrage Association, and in 1873, after returning from a tour of freedman’s communities in the reconstructed states of the South, she delivered the closing speech at the AWSA convention in New York. Harper told the convention, “As much as white women need the ballot, colored women need it more.” She called for equal rights and equal access to education for Black women, clearly defining race as a factor in the denial of women’s rights. Harper also spoke out against substance abuse, particularly alcohol, in the Black community. By 1887, she joined the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, where she served as the Superintendent of Work among the Colored People. She lectured and organized Black women into Temperance Unions, publishing reports in the Methodist Episcopal Church journal. In 1896, she was an organizer of the National Association of Colored Women and became its vice president. She died in Philadelphia at the age of eighty-five.
GERTRUDE BUSTILL MOSSELL (1855 – 1948):
From Philadelphia, Mossell was from a prominent free African American family of reformers, and married a physician. A professional journalist (Mrs. N. F. Mossell), she wrote a women’s column in T. Thomas Fortune’s newspaper, The New York Freeman. Her first article, entitled “Woman Suffrage,” published in 1885, encouraged women to read suffrage history and articles on women’s rights. Like Frances Harper, Mossell believed intemperance to be a great hindrance to the progress of the Black community. Her pro-suffrage arguments were similar to other African American suffragists of that era in calling for a Federal Amendment to enfranchise women, and she directed her arguments to the Black community through the Black press. As an affluent mother of two, as well as a professional writer, she could relate to middle-class views of housewives who were feminists.
JOSEPHINE ST. PIERRE RUFFIN (1842 – 1924):
Ruffin was a Massachusetts journalist and noted abolitionist before the Civil War. She joined the Massachusetts Woman Suffrage Association in 1875, and affiliated nationally with the American Woman Suffrage Association. In addition, she was a Black woman’s club leader in that state. She was the wife of George L. Ruffin, one of the woman suffrage representatives from Boston in the state legislature. In later years, she stated that she had joined the Massachusetts suffragists because of the warm welcome she was offered by the leaders Lucy Stone, Julia Ward Howe, and other suffragists. In 1895, she convened the first conference of the National Federation of Afro-American Women, probably the first national organization of Black women, in Boston, thereby becoming a leader in the Black woman’s club movement. Hundreds of Black women answered the call to convene, published in the Woman’s Era. She challenged the opposition to woman suffrage in Boston, writing an editorial in her Black women’s newspaper, the Woman’s Era, co-authored with her daughter, Florida Ridley. She edited the Woman’s Era, the first newspaper published by and for African American Women. She sarcastically told her audience that because of the organized opposition of the men toward woman suffrage, “Not for many years has so much enthusiasm and interest been shown” in support of women’s voting rights. Throughout the 1890s, Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin continued to urge white women to join with Black women to further women’s advancement, but her pleas fell largely on deaf ears outside of Massachusetts, and she was personally discriminated against when seeking to represent her club at the 1900 convention of the General Federation of Women’s Clubs, leading to the virtual segregation of Black and white women’s clubs.
CARRIE LANGSTON (EXACT DATES UNAVAILABLE – LATE 19TH EARLY 20TH Centuries):
From Lawrence, Kansas, Carrie was the daughter of civil rights activist Charles Langston and mother of Harlem Renaissance poet, Langston Hughes. A journalist, she wrote for the newspaper, The Atchison Blade, encouraging African American women to seek education, become politically active, and enter the profession of journalism. Refuting what she called “the male notion” that women were contented with their lot, she criticized men who attempted to keep women in an inferior position in society. She was the mother of famed African American poet Langston Hughes.
HISTORICAL NOTE ON THE AFRICAN AMERICAN WOMAN’S CLUB MOVEMENT:
Toward the end of the 19th Century, Black women organized themselves in woman’s clubs as a vehicle to accomplish their aims for change and reform. Many African American women joined local women’s clubs and further organized at the national level. In 1896, the National Federation of Afro-American Women merged with the National League of Colored Women to form the National Association of Colored Women, with activist Mary Church Terrell as its first president. Black women’s clubs became central to their reform and support of woman suffrage. On the national level, African American woman suffrage mobilization developed with the formation of the national black women’s club movement where suffrage became an agenda item. Their political impact was formidable; the NACW maintained a suffrage department. In 1916, the NACW passed a resolution in support of the woman suffrage amendment. The NACW’s vehicle for suffrage action was the Equal Suffrage League, which mobilized clubs to support suffrage.
MARY CHURCH TERRELL (1863 – 1954):
Terrell was a writer, educator, suffragist, and civil rights activist as well as a prime mover among Black women suffragists and clubwomen of the 20th century. She was the daughter of a millionaire from Memphis, Tennessee, where her father Robert, a former slave, rose to become a wealthy landowner. Educated at Oberlin College where she earned both an undergraduate and a Masters degree, Mary Church moved to the nation’s capital to teach at the famous M Street High School where she met and married the principal, Robert Church. She became a leader of the Black community’s social and civic life, and the first African American woman appointed to the school board in the District of Columbia. She was a member of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, adopting the mainstream feminist ideas and suffrage strategies. When two major African American women’s clubs merged to become the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) in 1896, Terrell was elected its first president. She founded the National Association of College Women which became the National Association of University Women. She was widely published in both the Black and white press.
Terrell, in her recorded speeches in the NAWSA’s History of Woman Suffrage, reminded white women that to exclude Black women from voting because of race was like excluding white women because of gender. In her speeches to the suffrage organization, she repeatedly defended against the charges of corruption among Black men, reminding white women of the racial barriers that kept many former slaves powerless. Terrell was instrumental in building Black women’s clubs into a national movement for reform in the Black community, and the impact of the Black women’s club movement was politically significant. In an article for the Crisis in 1915, she strategically compared the plight of Blacks and women. Terrell accepted a number of invitations to speak before white groups, advocating the vote for Black women.
In the famous March, 1913 suffrage parade in Washington, D. C., organized by Alice Paul and the Congressional Union of the NAWSA, Terrell marched with the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority from Howard University, assembled in the area reserved for Black women. She continued to represent and speak for Black women at national woman suffrage conventions. She served as director of work among Colored women in the east for the Republican National Committee after women won the vote.
Terrell’s lifelong commitment to liberating Blacks from oppression did not stop with her significant club work and advocacy of suffrage. In 1950, Terrell, then in her 80s,began a movement to integrate eating establishments in the District of Columbia. She walked picket lines and sued the District of Columbia under legislation passed during the Reconstruction era! She successfully de-segregated public accommodations and restaurants in the District of Columbia, in 1953, when the Supreme Court upheld the decision – a fitting climax to a life of reform.
IDA B. WELLS-BARNETT (1862 – 1931):
Wells-Barnett was a journalist, newspaper editor, suffragist, and Civil Rights leader. She was a militant journalist who wrote for several Black newspapers. She graduated from Oberlin College. Originally from Memphis, Tennessee, she led an anti-lynching crusade, after which a white lynch mob attacked the press for which she published and her press, The Free Speech and Headlight was destroyed. Threats to her life forced her to move to Chicago, where she worked for the Chicago Conservator newspaper, edited by Ferdinand Barnett, whom she married in 1895. Also in that year she published a book, The Red Record, detailing the atrocities of lynching. In 1896, she was a founder of the National Association of Colored Women and of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
A supporter of woman suffrage, she founded the Alpha Suffrage Club for African-American women, the first suffrage club for Black women. She marched in the 1913 suffrage parade in Washington, D.C., but refused to march at the back of the parade as other Black women did. She continued to be an outspoken advocate of Black women’s political activism. The Alpha Suffrage Club, of which Wells-Barnett was president, published a newsletter to educate the Black community about issues and candidates on the ballot. The club was influential in electing Black politician, Oscar DePriest, to the United States House of Representatives.
MARY TALBERT (1866 – 1923):
Talbert was a Buffalo, New York, educator, activist, suffrage supporter, and vice president of the National Association of Colored Women. A graduate of Oberlin College, she married William Talbert in 1891. Talbert was a founder of the Niagra Movement , which was a forerunner of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. A speaker of note, she lectured in the United States and abroad. Her leadership in the Black Women’s Club movement developed Black female leadership and became a political voice for African American women. She wrote suffrage articles for the Crisis magazine, and focused on political strategies to unify African American women. She also served as vice president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, where she and others from the organization presented evidence about the disenfranchisement of Black women.
A pioneer in the historic preservation movement, she helped save the Frederick Douglass home in the Anacostia section of Washington, D. C., along with Douglass’s wife and Nannie Helen Burroughs.
MRS. R. JEROME JEFFERY (EXACT DATES UNAVAILABLE):
Mrs. Jeffrey was a club woman leader from Rochester, New York, had been a cohort of Susan B. Anthony, and was president of the New York Federation of Colored Women. She was part of the networks of Black women in the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) and the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). Unfortunately, there appear to be no existing records of Jeffrey’s arguments advocating suffrage. Yet, her organization is often connected with advocacy of woman suffrage. Her photograph was pictured negatively as a friend of suffrage leaders Carrie Chapman Catt and Anna Howard Shaw in a racist flyer used by anti-suffragists as the kind of woman who would be enfranchised if women got the vote.
MRS. I. L. MOORMAN (EXACT DATES UNAVAILABLE):
From New York, Mrs. Moorman was president of the Negro Women’s Business League in New York City. She was affiliated with white suffrage supporter, Alva Belmont, and presided over a meeting in which Black women discussed with Belmont the proposal for funding a meeting room for Black suffragists to be underwritten by Belmont under the auspices of Belmont’s organization, the Political Equality Association. Moorman assured Belmont that Black women would “be glad of the opportunity of joining the [suffrage] movement.” This appeared to be a significant meeting as the point of interracial suffrage cooperation was initiated in the campaign for the woman suffrage in New York.
MARY E. JACKSON (EXACT DATES UNAVAILABLE):
From Rhode Island, Jackson was a state civil service employee who early in the 20th century worked with the Northeast Federation of Colored Women and headed the suffrage department of the National Association of Colored Women. Writing for a special suffrage issue of the Crisis magazine, Jackson wrote that “ . . . all objections to the ballot for women are but protests against progress, civilization and good sense.”
ADELLA HUNT LOGAN (1863 – 1915):
Adella Hunt was born into slavery, the daughter of a white planter and African American mother. She was educated at Atlanta University with the aid of her white father. An intellectual, Logan became a professor at Tuskegee Institute, headed by Black educator and activist Booker T. Washington, where she joined the faculty in 1883. In 1888, she married Warren Logan, a teacher at Tuskegee. As a life member of the National American Woman Suffrage Association who championed the vote for women early in the 20th century, Logan attended white suffrage meetings, as she was light enough to “pass” for white. A native of Sparta, Georgia, she contributed much to the philosophy of the black woman suffrage movement. She lectured at conferences of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and was a charter member of the Tuskegee Woman’s Club, which was a center of political club work among elite Black women. Logan was influential in promoting suffrage as a major concern among the club members. She staged lantern slide nights and organized suffrage parades for woman’s club members and her civics class at the beginning of President William McKinley’s re-election campaign. Logan’s published views in the Colored American Magazine and the Crisis, combined a traditional woman suffrage rationale with Black woman suffrage tenets, adding the dimensions of race. Logan used the arguments of Black suffragists of the past, such as Mary Ann Shadd Cary, Frances E. W. Harper, and Sojourner Truth. What Logan articulated that others did not, was that the vote would be a protection against the rape and sexual abuse of African American women. She commented that the “right of suffrage is withheld from women largely by ignorant and vicious men.” Her voice for the vote reached a national audience. Hers was the most comprehensive attack by an African American woman on the anti-woman suffrage arguments. Tragically, Logan suffered from depression and committed suicide in 1915.
MARY MCCURDY (EXACT DATES UNAVAILABLE):
McCurdy directed her suffrage argument to the African American community through the Black press, encouraging women to speak out during a period of heightened racial segregation. Living in Rome, Georgia, she carved out a career as a journalist and activist, encouraging Black women to use political means to solve social ills of the Black community. She was president of the local Black women’s temperance union in Rome, Georgia, and also edited the National Presbyterian, a temperance newspaper. Taking a position held by many women of the time, McCurdy held that the women of her race held a moral authority often lacking among men. She predicted that Black women would never allow their votes to be bought. McCurdy, like other Black women reformers, acknowledged the connection between the suffrage and temperance movements in the African American community.
FANNIE (FRANCES) BARRIER WILLIAMS (1855 – 1944):
Williams was an educator, clubwoman, and political and woman’s rights activist. From Brockport, New York, after graduation she went to the District of Columbia to teach. She married S. Laing Williams and they eventually settled in Chicago. She joined the Illinois Women’s Alliance and lectured on the need for Black women to vote. An acknowledged leader in the African American women’s club movement in Chicago, Illinois, she tried to join the prestigious Chicago Woman’s Club in 1894 and, after 14 months of controversy, Williams was admitted to membership. She wrote a history of the “colored” woman’s club movement, published in 1902. She traced the development of the movement which, by the early 20th century, numbered 400 clubs. She estimated that there were 150,000 to 200,000 Black members active in clubs nationwide. Prejudice against African American club women, she claimed, had brought women of the race closer together in their work. She was a co-founder of both the National Association of Colored Women and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Williams was the only African American chosen to eulogize Susan B. Anthony at the 1907 National American Woman Suffrage Convention.
CORALIE FRANKLIN COOK (1861 – 1942):
Coralie Franklin Cook was a descendant of Betty Hemmings, a slave at Monticello (great-granddaughter of Brown Colbert), and the first descendant of a Monticello slave to graduate from college. Born in Lexington, VA, she graduated from Storer College in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. A powerful public speaker, she became a faculty member at Howard University. At Howard she met and married George William Cook, a professor and Dean of the school. Cook had moved to Washington, D. C. in the late 19th. Century, and became the second African American woman appointed to the School Board of the District of Columbia. A leader in the Black women’s club movement, she was a founder of the National Association of Colored Women and an ardent suffragist who also moved within the inner circles of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, as she was educated, professional, and middle-class. Cook reminded white women that they could not ignore the political rights of the less fortunate. She, like Terrell, married a professional man, Howard University professor George W, Cook. Writing in the Crisis magazine, Cook reminded Black men that “disfranchisement because of sex is curiously like disfranchisement because of color. It cripples the individual; it handicaps progress; it sets a limitation upon mental and spiritual development.” She became a prominent social and civic leader among Washington’s African American elite.
JANIE PORTER BARRETT (1865 – 1948):
Janie Porter Barrett was a social settlement house founder, educator, and leader in the Black women’s club movement. Born in Athens, GA, she was a graduate of Hampton Institute, where she became fired with a desire to uplift her race. After graduation, she taught at Lucy Laney’s Haines Normal and Industrial School in Georgia, and then taught night classes at Hampton Institute. She married Harris Barrett of the Hampton business school faculty. In 1890, Barrett set up her home as the Locust Street Social Settlement House bringing education, vocational training, and social services to the Black community in Hampton, VA. Hers was the first settlement house in Virginia, and the first Black settlement house in the nation. The success of this experiment enabled her to build a separate building to house the settlement in 1892. Her settlement house became famous in the Settlement House movement, and her power in the community gained her the position of the first Presidency of the Virginia Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs. Like other Black activists and settlement workers, she supported woman suffrage as a strategy to empower women. The Virginia Federation became noted for its reform and rehabilitation work with incarcerated Black girls in the Virginia prison system. In 1914, the Federation purchased Peaks Turnout, north of Richmond, VA, as a rehabilitation, education, and training center for Black young women, and in 1915 the Virginia Industrial School for Colored Girls was opened there. The curriculum offered an eighth grade education and training in laundry, sewing, and housekeeping, fitting them for jobs after leaving school. In 1930, Barrett was asked to attend the White House Conference on Child health and Protection. She chaired the Executive Board of the National Association of Colored Women from 1924-28. Her Industrial School continues to exist today as the Barrett Learning Center.
NAOMI TALBERT [ANDERSON] (1863 – ?):
Talbert was a suffragist, poet, and advocate for equal rights, who was born to free Black parents in Michigan City, Indiana. A member of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union and a suffrage supporter, she spoke from the platform at the 1869 National Woman Suffrage Convention, held in Chicago. Stanton and Anthony published excerpts of her speech in their newspaper, The Revolution, identifying her only as “a colored women,” not by her name. She spoke in the then-classic African American oratorical style, mixing elements of suffragist arguments with strong Biblical references, calling for the right of women to vote. Her identification with Stanton and Anthony caused offense in her African American community of Chicago, and she was severely censured. Seeking to defend herself, she published an article in the Chicago Tribune, which was very similar to her speech at the Convention. Her speech and article reflected 19th century Black oratorical style, mixing political arguments with religious symbolism. Struggling to support her ailing husband and family, she moved to Portsmouth, Ohio and learned the trade of hairdressing. There she organized a home for Black children while continuing to speak and write promoting temperance and the vote for women.
MARGARET MURRAY WASHINGTON (1865 – 1925):
Washington played many important roles in the national African American community. Of mixed racial background, she was an educator at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama and the third wife of Booker T. Washington, leader of the Institute, whom she married in 1893. She often wrote his speeches. She became the lady principal of the Tuskegee Institute, where she founded Mt. Meigs School for Boys and an industrial school for girls at Tuskegee. Washington was Vice President of the National Association of Colored Women, and editor of the association’s official publication, National Association Notes. By 1915, Washington had become president of the NACW, which she had co-founded. When Susan B. Anthony invited national women’s organizations to enter official statements to be published in the fourth volume of the History of Woman Suffrage, Washington responded for the National Association of Colored Women and her statement was the sole representation of Black women in that volume. The Tuskegee Woman’s Club, which Washington founded, became the center for educational, social and political club work among the elite and educated women associated with Tuskegee Institute. She was noted for promoting interracial cooperation.
ANNA J. COOPER (1858 – 1964):
One of a cohort of distinguished Black activists, scholars, and reformers in the nation’s capital, Anna Cooper had earned a degree from Oberlin College in 1884 and came to the District of Columbia to teach at the famed M Street High School, where she was a teacher and principal. She viewed the status of Black women as central to the progress of the nation. Born in Raleigh, North Carolina, she received her Ph.D. in history from the Sorbonne, Paris. She was a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority. When Anna Cooper arrived in Washington, she was a widow and did not remarry. She had previously been an instructor at Wilberforce College in Ohio. As a distinguished teacher, she became a social activist and clubwoman who mentored other women such as Angelina Grimke and Nannie Helen Burroughs. Cooper exemplified women who had been former slaves who had managed to become college-educated women. A feminist, Cooper wrote a highly influential book entitled, A Voice from the South, in 1892, articulating Black feminism and a vision of self determination through education and social uplift. She was a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha women’s sorority, the first organization of its kind for Black college-educated women. The Anna J. Cooper Center on Gender, Race, and Politics at Wake Forest University honors her work.
NANNIE HELEN BURROUGHS (1879 – 1961):
Burroughs was a Black educator, church leader, and suffrage supporter, feminist, and businesswoman. Originally from Orange, Virginia, Burroughs was brought to Washington, D. C. by her mother to obtain a better education. After graduating from the M Street High School, where Anna J. Cooper and Mary Church Terrell became her role models, discrimination in the District’s public schools prevented her from obtaining a teaching position – she was considered to be “too dark.” Burroughs moved to Memphis, Tennessee to work for the Black Baptist Convention. In 1900, at the Richmond, VA gathering of the National Baptist Convention, Burroughs delivered a powerful speech entitled, “How the Sisters are Hindered from Helping,” which won her instant acclaim and recognition. Burroughs founded the Woman’s Convention of the National Baptist Convention, a woman’s church organization which became one of the most important and nationally powerful organizations of African American women. As a national feminist, Burroughs was its guiding hand, building it to become the largest body of African American women in the United States with a membership of more than one million women, and leading it to the support of woman suffrage. She headed the organization until her death.
In 1909, Burroughs established the National Training School for Women and Girls, which became a major influence nationally in the education of Black women, on land she purchased in the nation’s capital. The school combined a rigorous academic curriculum with industrial training for Black women. She used the Home Economics curriculum to enable her students to obtain lucrative domestic positions with rich, white families, a prominent career path for Black women at that time. The school also educated more missionaries for service abroad than any other school. Burroughs also opened the Sunshine Laundry, which trained students to work in the laundry industry, and helped the school weather the economic hardships of the Great Depression. During the Great Depression, the White House had all its laundry done at the Sunshine Laundry, helping to keep the school solvent.
Burroughs was a staunch supporter of woman suffrage and wrote articles of support in the Crisis magazine. She brought her Woman’s Convention of the National Baptist Convention to support woman suffrage.
MAMIE DILLARD (EXACT DATES UNAVAILABLE):
A Black Temperance organizer from Lawrence, Kansas, she specifically linked the politics of reform in the community to woman suffrage, crediting the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) for influencing the passage of school suffrage for women in several states. Dillard urged Black women to join segregated Black unions and this proved fruitful as, by the turn of the 20th century, there were several WCTU unions throughout the nation. Segregated, “Colored” unions provided Black women autonomy and leadership opportunities they would have been denied if integrated into unions headed by white women.
VICTORIA EARLE MATTHEWS:
Born into slavery in Georgia, Matthews was an African American social worker, author, newspaper woman, settlement house leader, and social activist who had moved from Georgia to New York City after the Civil War. With little education, Matthews worked as a domestic servant until she married. Writing under the pen name of Victoria Earle, Matthews became a journalist with T. Thomas Fortune’s New York Age and the Woman’s Era. She met Ida B. Wells when Wells came to New York to lecture against lynching. Matthews helped organize a testimonial for Wells and this event led to the development of the Women’s Loyal League of New York and Brooklyn. Matthews was among the clubwomen attending the conference that led to the founding of the National Federation of Afro-American Women, a forerunner of the National Association of Colored Women (NACW). She served as Chair of the Executive Board of the NACW. Victoria Earle Matthews was also well known as the founder and leader of a colored Social Settlement House in New York, known as the White Rose Mission, which provided young Black women with safe housing, education, and job skills to prepare them for useful work and successful lives.
LUCY LANEY (1854 – 1933):
Laney was an educator of African Americans who founded the first school for Black children in Augusta, GA. After attending Atlanta University, she founded and was the principal of Haines Normal and Industrial Institute, named after the benefactor who provided the money to finance the school. Lucy Laney served in that post for 50 years. She also served as president of the City Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs of Augusta, Georgia. This club was an influential organization in the life of the Black community in Augusta.
LUGENIA BURNS HOPE (1871 – 1947):
Lugenia Burns Hope was a social activist, reformer, and community organizer. She was the wife of Atlanta University’s first Black president, John Hope, whom she married in 1897. He joined the faculty at what is now Morehouse College, and later became it president. Among the most influential Black women leaders in the South, Lugenia became one of the first African American social workers, founding the Neighborhood Union in 1908, which provided educational programming, medical care, job training, and social services to Atlanta’s Black community. She was also a founder of the Atlanta branch of the National Association of Colored Women. She combined race and gender activism. Hope was particularly concerned about the plight of Black female domestic workers. Domestic or household labor was the dominant occupation of Southern Black women. She wrote a statement outlining her concerns about the sexual abuse and terrible housing conditions of these women. Because Black women worked in white women’s homes, they were absent from their own children. Hope encouraged white women to help Blacks establish day nurseries, playgrounds, and recreation centers to protect and train Black children. Hope was concerned with segregation in public travel and transportation, deploring the conditions under which Black women were forced to travel in segregated streetcars and train stations. An outspoken supporter of equal suffrage, she stated that the ballot “is the safeguard of the nation.” She served as Chair of the Department of Neighborhood Works of the National Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs.
During World War II, when the United Service Organization (USO) did not provide services to Black soldiers, Lugenia Hope coordinated nationwide Hostess Houses to provide recreation and relocation programs to Black and Jewish soldiers who had served in the United States Armed Forces.
JOSEPHINE BRUCE (1853 – 1923):
Born in Philadelphia and educated in Cleveland, Bruce was a political activist and the wife of Republican Blanche K. Bruce, the first United States Senator from Mississippi during the Reconstruction Era. Senator Bruce supported the enfranchisement of women while serving as Senator. While Senator Bruce served in the Senate and, later, when the couple remained in Washington, their home became a center of Washington, D. C. social life. Josephine Bruce was a charter member of the Colored Woman’s League of Washington, D. C. and helped organize the National Organization of Afro-American Women in 1894, a forerunner of the National Association of Colored Women. During Margaret Murray Washington’s presidency of the National Association of Colored Women, Josephine Bruce headed the national Executive Committee of the NACW, and was editor of its publication, Notes. Bruce wrote editorials for the NACW publication demonstrating the increasing concern of the organization’s leadership and membership regarding woman suffrage. She also published articles in the Crisis magazine and in voice of the Negro. She also became editor of the magazine for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. After the death of her husband, she joined the faculty of Tuskegee where she became Dean of Women. Like a number of other Black women reformers, she brought together her community’s concerns with both Temperance and Suffrage.
VERINA MORTON JONES: (1865 – 1943)
Dr. Jones was a physician, suffragist, and clubwoman. Born in Cleveland in 1865, she graduated from the prestigious Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania in 1888, and became the first woman to pass the Mississippi medical exam and the first woman licensed to practice medicine in Mississippi. After her marriage to Walter Morton in 1890, she moved to Brooklyn where she co-founded (with Mary White Ovington) and led the Lincoln Settlement House in Brooklyn, New York. The settlement was an extension of the famous Henry Street Settlement in New York City headed by Lillian Wald. The settlement offered a free kindergarten, a day nursery for working parents, and a clinic. Morton Jones was active in the National Association of Colored Women and fought for woman suffrage while she served as president of the Brooklyn Equal Suffrage League. Later, she became a member of the Executive Board of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) from 1913 -1925.
Rosalyn Terborg-Penn, African American Women in the Struggle for the Vote: 1850-1920 (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press) 1998.
Rosalyn Terborg-Penn, “African American Women and the Woman Suffrage Movement,” in One Woman One Vote: Rediscovering the Woman Suffrage Movement, ed. Marjorie Spruill Wheeler (NewSage Press, 1995) Chapter 7.
Darlene Clark Hine, Wilma King, Linda Reed, eds., “We Specialize in the Wholley Impossible”: A Reader in Black Women’s History (Brooklyn: New York) 1995. Quote from African American leader Nannie Helen Burroughs.
The short biographies of African American Leaders in the woman Suffrage Movement were compiled using Dr. Rosalyn Terborg-Penn’s information about their role and contributions to the suffrage movement combined with biographical information which I added concerning their lives, birth and death dates, and other information from the reference work Notable American Women, published by the Belknap Press of Harvard University (first three volumes), available at most libraries. I also consulted biographical references on the Internet for those women for whom entries existed. Please consult these sources for additional biographical information and references.
About Edith Mayo
Edith Mayo is a nationally renowned historian and Curator Emerita in Political and Women’s History at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. She is author of numerous publications and academic articles, including her books First Ladies: Political Role and Public Image (1995), The Smithsonian’s Book of First Ladies: Their Lives, Times, and Issues (1996), and Presidential Families (2006).